Fishing Lines: Walton going on 400

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TOMORROW should be a very big day for the world's most famous angling writer. But so little is known about Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, that the 400th anniversary of his birth will pass almost unnoticed.

Walton's book has now been printed in nearly 500 editions. But there is still no biography, and a group of youngsters I questioned agreed that Walton was the man who discovered something by an apple falling on his head. Ah, it's a great thing, education.

To be fair, even Waltonphiles don't know much more about him. Born in 1593, the son of the yeoman Jervis Walton had only a rudimentary education. 'If he had gone to university, The Compleat Angler would have been a very different book,' the Walton historian Tony Bridgett says.

Walton married Rachel Floud, a descendant of Archbishop Cranmer, and when she died in childbirth, he married the half- sister of Bishop Kenn. Theological links litter Walton's life. He was a close friend of the Dean of St Paul's and probably had a milliner's business and supplied vestry garments.

At his death, aged 90, Walton left property all over the place, including a farm and cottage at Shallowford, a few miles outside Stafford. If his son had married by the age of 42, he would have collected the lot. But obviously influenced by Dad's devout friends, he took Holy Orders and the properties went to the people of Stafford.

In fact Stafford is the only place where there is any Walton-related activity this weekend. If you are reading this after 9.30am, you've missed the commemorative service in St Mary's Church, Stafford. But there is an all-day fair at the cottage today, while the local fly-fishers are holding a dinner and an angling competition.

Though the cottage where Walton wrote much of The Compleat Angler is the centrepiece of most activities, nobody knows even when it was built. 'We just haven't been able to find any records about it,' the angling historian John Stephenson said.

It was tiled in 1939, but a couple of years ago Stafford Borough Council completed renovation works, including a new thatched roof. It is furnished with a display showing the literary and social life of Walton, plus the development of angling through the last 400 years.

If you want to save the pounds 1 entrance fee, you can join the Friends of Izaak Walton, which gets you access to the nearby Meece Brook and allows you to fish the very places mentioned in The Compleat Angler. The organisation is also trying to collect suitable artefacts. 'We haven't managed to collect anything Walton used, but then he would just have fished with the branch of a tree,' Stephenson says.

Interestingly, a fishing bag bearing the name 'Isaak Walton' holds pride of place in the Flyfishers Club in London. But it is almost certainly a fake because Walton, though christened Isaak, always spelt his name with a 'z'.

A quatercentenary limited edition of The Compleat Angler has just been published by The Flyfishers Classic Library, Dartmoor View, Mary Street, Bovey Tracey, Devon TQ13 9HQ. It costs pounds 45, including post and packing.